Race & Culture

Before you pray for Charleston…

To all my brethren, praying now for Charleston or gathering tonight in the coming days… I am no one at all to offer these thoughts, but you must decide for yourselves whether they are needful:

Consider how shameful it would be to falsely divide their Christian souls from their black bodies. Much of the commentary I have seen tries to do so. They were Black Christians, specifically; the shooter committed this heinous act out of hatred for their black bodies. Our prayers must deal with that reality. We do violence all over again to those 9 souls if we whitewash their Black identity with their Christian identity. For many of us Black Christians, the two identities live joyously as one in the same body, mutually affirming the other. The Charleston 9 are martyrs for both the Christian faith and the Black American struggle.

Consider that the universe bends towards justice, but another force bends toward death. AME’s were created because many American churches bent with the Sin, Flesh and the Devil toward a throwaway culture of death: they segregated blacks, viewing them as less of a person in God’s eyes than whites. So blacks left. Hundreds of years later that same hatred followed them into the church and murdered them in cold blood. We all carry the spark of God’s justice within us, made in his image – but we also carry the spark of Sin, Flesh and the Devil. What violence – overt, subtle, great or small – lurks in our hearts? How is God using this moment to call us to repentance, and for what?

Consider the power of forgiveness. Now is our moment to turn into one another in loving embrace, not turn away in mutual suspicion. We must also forgive the shooter. We must not desire to answer blood with blood, but answer hatred with love. Let us pray for all white supremacists, that they may know the love of God, and the joy that comes from knowing and loving your neighbor as a co-equal laborer in God’s kingdom.

Consider lastly the power of silence. It is godly wisdom to be silent so we may hear God in the midst of a violent storm. But it is cowardice – a sin – to be silent in the face of evil. Let us be silent like sheep, but only so long as to let the Shepherd speak, then let us shout his words, roaring like lions.

Yet, also consider that we may no longer have words. I know after too many years of violence against blacks, I have few left to speak. I have been reading Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment alongside Charleston news, and am reminded of Paul:

We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

Do we hurt enough today to only groan in prayer? Do we hate Sin, Flesh and the Devil so much… love our neighbor so deeply… hope enough in the kingdom, that the cry of our soul manifests only as unintelligible noise to the flesh, but a mournful, beautiful spiritual to God’s ears?

Any prayer is better than no prayer at all – yet, the question remains, how deep are we willing to go? If we can bravely face that question, we may be considered truly praying for Charleston, and be one step closer to the kingdom of God.

Seeing Christ Is All and In All

If this man went to your church, or Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, how do you interpret Galatians 3:28 or Colossians 3:11 in light of their experience?

I have been troubled by this question for the past few months, as I live astride that blurred line between church and society. In conversation with other evangelicals, I have heard, echoing a popular commentary, social distinctions do not exist in the Body – we are all one in Christ. Often, discussion of racism and other structural sins is dismissed out of hand, based on the one in Christ idea, in order to maintain unity. I will not dispute that we need to focus on Christ, and our unity in him. My question is how do we do that? How can the Body of Christ truly recognize the Christ in all and also withstand the evil systems of oppression that intersect redeemed souls?

I do not want to be like the goats before Christ and he find me wanting, asking me, “Didn’t you see me bound? Didn’t you see me oppressed? Didn’t you see me hurting? When you saw them bound, oppressed and hurt, you saw me. Why didn’t you help me?

Let us approach the question another way – Paul also said that whoever is born again in Christ is a new creation, the old is dead and gone, the new has come. To use an old convention, I don’t know about you but… I don’t feel like a new creation. I fall short of the glory bestowed on me by Christ. Yet, Paul did not lie. To call my lived reality simply a lie and continue to speak or affirm what I do not know in my experience is willful blindness. No, something else is at work here.

The spiritual reality of the new creation is true, even if scarcely experienced. The dominating earthly reality is also true. We experience the gap between the two as, what I call, a “dissonance of realities”. But God is bringing a new experience, what I call “creative tension”: the bridging of the gap between our dissonant existence by the power of Christ. Faith is the strong force that pulls these two realities together, a concrete trust in action working creatively with God to remake earth into heaven. To apply it, my faith works with God to make the me that lives with Christ in heaven manifest on the earth.

Christ’s judgment of the sheep and goats reflects this idea. The material reality is that some are American and illegal aliens, white and black, male and female, rich and poor. The spiritual reality is that Christ is in and loves every single one of “them”, just as they are, in the condition that they are in.

But to follow Howard Thurman, if a Roman soldier kicked Christ into a ditch, how can we acknowledge the moral wrong of the kick, yet be willfully blind to the fact Jesus was kicked also because he was a poor minority living under the oppression of an unjust authority? The question should come back to us, “When you saw them bound, oppressed and hurt, you saw me. Why didn’t you help me?” Unity in Christ means peace, but not a negative peace. As MLK taught us, peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. If Jesus is the prince of peace, he is also the prince of justice. As Jesus reigns over us, what he wants is not the veneer of unity, but the deep, powerful, abiding force of justice.

We can withstand evil when we realize and act upon the understanding that within the Mystical Body of Christ our brothers and sisters are not white-washed Christians untouched by the systems of oppression the adversary has constructed in the world he (for now) rules. No – our brothers and sisters are touched, hurt, violated by these systems – these demonic principalities and powers. To simply say there are no social distinctions and deny the lived experience is itself an oppression and a violation of the gospel. We can withstand evil when we leverage our faith in active confrontation with the systems of oppression, both struggling against the evil in our own souls, and with the systems outside ourselves.

This is hardly the end of the matter for me. Questions are better than answers, so I challenge you to ask some of the same question I’m asking myself:

  • Which parts of the Body of Christ hurt under the pains of injustice? Am I willfully blind to their pain? Am I complicit in their pain by my actions or inaction?
  • Do my politics – all of them, across every issue – truly accord with who Christ is? Do I support policies by my vote or donations that may oppress others?
  • Are there any people whom I view as the enemy? Do I love them as Christ commanded me?
  • Would Christ think I see him in all people?

Chapter 2 of “Jesus & the Disinherited”: “Fear”

The resources of the environment are made into instruments to enforce the artificial position. Most of the accepted social behavior-patterns assume [injustice] to be normal–if normal, then correct; if correct, then moral; if moral, then religious. Religion is thus made a defender and guarantor of the presumptions. Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, pg 43

The Beloved Disciple John said that there is no fear in love, rather, perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Fear then, is the antithesis of love; and if God is love, fear is inimical to the very nature of God. In the 2nd chapter of Disinherited, Thurman takes up the issue of fear. (more…)

Chapter 1 of “Jesus & the Disinherited”: “Jesus: an Interpretation”

“It is necessary to examine the religion of Jesus against the background of his own age and people, and to inquire into the content of his teaching with reference to the disinherited and the underprivileged.”

The first chapter of Jesus and the Disinherited has many rich ideas, such as how Paul’s Roman citizenship affected his views on political authority, or how the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots stand for different ways to resist an oppressive power. I want to highlight, however, the social and political implications of Jesus’ Incarnation and teachings as expressed by Howard Thurman. (more…)

Intro: “Jesus & the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman

It’s been far too long since my last post, and before February is too far gone, I want to celebrate, in a way, Black History Month. Over a series of posts, I will share key points from Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. It’s an ingenious little book containing ideas realized in the Civil Rights Movement. I also hope to bring his insights to bear on some of the socio-cultural issues we face as a people today, Christian, Black, American or world citizen.

Howard Thurman used to read the Bible to his grandmother, “who was born a slave and lived until the Civil War on a plantation near Madison, Florida.” He would read her the Bible save the Pauline epistles. It was decades before he asked her why. Her answer was striking: (more…)

I’m Dreaming of an Incarnate Christmas

Last week I let politics override faith as I laughed at the uproar over MegynAishaGate (trademarked!). If you remember, Aisha Harris wrote a post in Slate arguing we should replace Santa with a penguin because a white Santa alienated her as a child. Megyn Kelly, Fox News host, argued that discomfort with social messages doesn’t mean it should change, effectively dismantling Thurgood Marshall’s arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. Kelly provoked backlash over her comment that Santa just is white, just like Jesus just is white, a verifiable fact according to her. A day or so later she explained MegynAishaGate was a tongue in cheek discussion in the media, and anyone who took it seriously was targeting Fox for race-baiting. Personally, I can’t wait for the comedy tour because this duo is hilarious.

Lost in the fog of media is the incarnational power of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas. Jesus is God made flesh like us. The ineffable, eternal, boundless, all-powerful God left heaven behind. He poured out all of himself, constraining it to a single body, mortal, limited, weak, dependent child who was born outside, under threat of death, to poor parents, in a feeding trough. Christmas is not so much about the celebration of God’s gift to mankind, but our grasping to understand and live out the powerful mystery of God made flesh.

God made flesh changes everything. Jesus held down a job, commuted to work, had family pressures, friends he would hang out with… Jesus cried. Jesus got angry, hungry, maybe even hangry. Jesus got frustrated. Jesus was amazed. Jesus was afraid.  In short, Jesus was a person just like us and understands each of us, what we struggle with, fear, worry about, crave, and need. Jesus’ understanding of us is what enables him to be our Savior. Without the Incarnation, there is no salvation, and Christianity is meaningless.

What do I mean by that? Aisha’s criticism of a white Santa originated in frustration over an American culture that prizes ‘White’ and shuns, shames, or even hates what is not ‘White’.  Put simply, it’s the zeitgeist that says you must look, think, act and be this way to be not only accepted, but to be good. Pivoting to the white Jesus comment, the problem is not just an error in historicity, but it violates the very point of Jesus’ incarnation.

For centuries, a ‘white Jesus’ was used to promote white hegemony and drove many non-whites away from the faith. Jesus became a tool and symbol of alienation and oppression, instead of the liberator and friend that he truly is. The Bible doesn’t speak of Jesus’ color or appearance because, as Paul emphatically says, in Him there is no Jew, Greek, man, woman, slave or free man. All are one in Him.

I know what it means to live behind the veil, as DuBois called it, that veil that keeps the things of this world seen but not accessible to you because of your color, that says you’re not truly accepted because you’re not white. Praise be to Jesus that he ripped the veil in two, and out of two different people, made one that he could call his own.

The backdrop to this, admittedly not very funny, MegynAishaGate is evidence the world celebrates but doesn’t understand Christmas. I don’t really expect them to. What I do expect is that believers understand and proclaim from the rooftops the power of the incarnation, and how it unites us with Jesus and with one another. Without Jesus in the flesh, incarnated, put to death, and resurrected, our faith loses all power and meaning. May we never forget what the real meaning of Christmas is.

The Negro Still Speaks of Rivers

our chains are gone, dusky hide unscarred and
jim has died with our old grey leaders.
we escaped cotton shares for ghetto squares
and our blood flows more from north than south, yet
the negro still speaks of rivers.

our enduring power is no longer love but black,
and so we hate. reckless abandon of a king’s dream
to hold hands and sing with those of another hue, yet
the negro still speaks of rivers.

story, culture, love and sermon prophesied
to a nation’s soul blacker than it desired, yet
did black power render us voiceless,
robbing the grey and the old rugged cross?

blood and water he still seeps and bleeds
desires its rolling down mountains purple.
it roars out atavism to a people listening, so yes,
the negro still speaks of rivers.

© Regis A. Saxton